As passionate fans of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, we are so proud to be the exclusive outlet to bring you an interview with the villain of show, the wonderful (in real life) John Magaro. Not only are we admirers of the series, having watched and discussing it endlessly since it began streaming mid-February, but we are avid supporters of the ensemble of the Toronto-shot show as well. Be sure to read our recent interview with Emmy Raver-Lampman, if you haven’t already (it was even referenced heavily on Buzzfeed!), and the following is our exclusive one-on-one conversation with the well-spoken and friendly John Magaro. *MAJOR UMBRELLA ACADEMY SPOILERS AHEAD*
Brief Take: Is it fine with you to discuss what happens in The Umbrella Academy openly?
John Magaro: If you haven’t seen it yet, then you’re too late. Go watch it. C’mon, it’s out. Go watch it now! So let’s spill the beans. What do you want to know about it?
BT: You play such a complex character on The Umbrella Academy. Do you think of Leonard Peabody as the ultimate villain?
JM: I never like to think of things as so black and white if they don’t have to be, and I think that (showrunner) Steve (Blackman) got away from that intentionally because this character is inspired by The Conductor from the graphic novels and he’s talked about on several occasions. That character is the quintessential arch villain with a twirling mustache, like Snidely Whiplash (from Dudley Do-Right), like that kind of villain. I think that Steve knew that he had to get away from that. I think that he wanted Leonard to come off in a way of somebody who is not totally evil, but clearly a bad guy at the end of the day. And I think that’s the real way to say it: he’s a bad guy—he’s not a super villain, he has no powers, he’s really, in a way, a troubled kid. He comes from a bad family and basically has an abusive relationship with Vanya. He continues to gaslight her, he continues to manipulate her, and I think that is based on his own feelings of insecurity and pain and resentment, so you know, these are all very human feelings. So it’s hard to call somebody a villain, or just a totally black, evil, dark villainous character who had these kinds of real motivations.
BT: You always seem to exist somewhere in the middle of extremes in all of your roles.
JM: That’s the reason I do this thing. I could not never imagine playing someone that doesn’t have that grey area in which they live—that’s why playing Tibbet (in Overlord) was also a joy, because I honestly believe that’s how we are as humans. I mean, maybe there is, but I really don’t think that there are people who are totally evil and totally good. I think people live in the middle—people do things that are selfish sometimes, people do things that are altruistic sometimes—it just depends on when you catch them. Leonard is a guy who did something terrible, but we don’t know that in-between time when he was in jail or even when he got out of jail. But he senses an opportunity when Reginald (Colm Feore) dies and he gets impatient [chuckles], and he pushes too hard and you know, because of that, he pays for it in the end. I think that greed, that pride, that anger turns him more villainous than he might have been already.
BT: Perhaps his lack of outright villainous behaviour at the start makes him seem even more evil in the end?
JM: I think that’s why the response to him has been a lot of people being very angry, because it is very real. We all know people in our lives like this, who use us and fool us, and that’s almost worse than having you know, like the Joker or somebody who is clearly crazy and villainous. And that’s the worst, thinking that you know someone and they turn out to be not quite what you expected. He reminds me of how people respond to Joffrey or to Ramsay from Game of Thrones, because even in that world, which is a heightened world, those are two guys who the reason that they are that way isn’t just because they’re evil—they are evil, but it’s because of circumstances that have made them that way. So to see that, that’s a scary, scary thing. He is clearly using Vanya, but he does sense her loneliness and that plays into his loneliness and [sighs] maybe in a different world, [laughs] maybe in alternate times they could have figured it out in a better way, but unfortunately in this world that wasn’t going to happen.
BT: You are such an integral part of the denouement of the series.
JM: Well, without him, you don’t have her becoming who she is. It will be very fascinating to see what they do next season with it, because nobody, no one, no one except for a few writers in the room, have any idea of where it is going to go.
BT: We at Brief Take theorize that the series is about toxic masculinity, the stigma around mental health, and then also about fighting the patriarchy and women having a voice. How heavily do you lean into this series as metaphor in these ways?
JM: You’re spot on! I mean you’d have to ask Steve and you’d have to ask the writers about how much that is what they intended, but I think living in the present and living in the zeitgeist that we are currently going through, there is no way to avoid those issues seeping heavily into your storytelling. These are things which we are constantly battling against. I’m glad that you said the ‘toxic masculinity’, now with me, while I was playing that, I tried not to think of it too much because that would have made it to be more on the nose than it needed, but he is certainly a toxic male figure. He’s an abusive, gaslighting kind of piece of shit. He’s flushing down her medication, he’s trying to control her, he’s making her feel like she’s going crazy, when he’s actually doing things to her to try to manipulate. I mean, this is a kind of relationship—an abusive relationship—that isn’t told a lot on screen. And to have the chance to show that in a graphic novel show is really special. I think that you’re dead right—those are all issues that are there and in a way intending to be told, and I feel like in the future seasons, what’s going on in the world is going to naturally seep into the storytelling then.
BT: Speaking of multilayered Netflix shows, you have such an incredible rapport with Yael Stone on Orange is the New Black as well.
JM: It’s always such a privilege for me to go back to that show, because [laughs] I honestly never know when I am going to go back or when I am not going to go back, or what their plan is for us each season. So when I do get that call to go back, to see her is always such a pleasure. I really love working with her. We couldn’t have done that scene, you know that When Harry Met Sally on acid scene, having an orgasm in the visiting room— you can’t do that with someone that you don’t love and trust and respect as a fellow actor. Getting to sit across from her and getting to share scenes with her, we’re always able to push each other to kind of be as silly and as heartfelt as possible. It’s the last season of that show, I won’t tell you if I am doing it or what happens, but it was such a pleasure to be a part of it and it was such an important show that really changed a lot of things in television. It opened up a whole new world; that and I think House of Cards were the ones that started this whole streaming renaissance.
BT: You’ve really been at the forefront of exploring the performance element on Netflix.
JM: You know it’s a pioneering medium right now and no one would have really known. Even ten years ago, no one knew it. I remember when I was doing this David Chase film called Not Fade Away, I’m not sure what year it was (2012), and Steven Van Zandt was a producer on that and we would have music rehearsals at the studio, and at that time he was shooting the first season of Lilyhammer, which was the first streaming show ever. To see the growth of those platforms—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, the list goes on – in such a quick time has just been fascinating. It’s great for actors and it’s great for creative folks because it gives us a chance to explore new things. There’s a lot of opportunities right now.
BT: What was it like to work on Umbrella Academy, and especially opposite Ellen Page?
JM: I showed up and they had already shot the pilot, because as you know, I don’t start until the second episode. So they had finished the pilot and they had a little break over the holidays, and then they were getting ready and getting geared up to start episode 2. So I show up, and I hadn’t met Emmy (Raver-Lampman), I hadn’t met Ellen—I hadn’t really met anyone until I got to Toronto. So I arrived there and the first time I met Ellen was when we sat down with one of our directors and just kind of discussed our first scene together, and right away we clicked. We connected, we knew we had some sort of connection and we work in a very similar way. She’s exceptionally smart and she’s so talented as an actress. I keep saying that she should be directing and she should be writing and producing because she’s capable of so much more, and she offers such a unique perspective. We just hit it off right away which doesn’t happen all the time. We were able to become friends, we were able to collaborate. We were able to toss ideas off of each other and find a way to tell the story as uniquely as possible. Those kind of connections: they either happen or they don’t, and fortunately it happened for us.
Luckily, the entire cast, everyone, Emmy, Tom (Hopper), Rob (Sheehan), keep going down the list, everyone were such lovely people. They formed a family, and they were also kind enough to let me in. Basically we did our best to have as much fun in Toronto as we could while we were shooting. That meant going to basketball games, going out and to karaoke or to Pride—but it really became a family. We were in this kind of adventure together, so it was really a joy. Luckily Toronto’s an accommodating city, it’s a lot of fun. I hosted a couple of BBQs on my roof for everyone, because you guys have amazing butchers in town, and food as well as produce, so we just had an amazing time.
BT: Can you tell me a little about your charity work?
JM: Right now I am helping out a wonderful non-profit called The Healing Tree and trying to offer them some help with producing some sort of PSA’s and maybe even a short film. Sharing those kinds of things, sharing those sorts of experiences are kind of more important to me than sharing pictures of me on the beach. [laughs]
BT: Your upcoming slate is a bit of a mystery. What do you have coming up?
JM: I’m starting try to dabble a little in production a bit and we’ll see where that goes. But there are projects that aren’t on IMDb because I can’t talk about them, but I’m really looking forward to them, and one of them is really special to my heart and I think that it’s going to be special to a lot of people. So we’ll see how that goes and hopefully they’ll make an announcement soon and then we can talk about it. [laughs]
BT: What will you take with you from this series?
JM: Oh geez, it’s really more about the experience of being a part of that group and being a part of something that resonated with people so much. At the end of the day, there’s a part of the character that stays with you but I do also like to let it go—especially someone like Leonard, you know? You obviously learn the lessons, and these are lessons we all know, but this is obviously how we should treat people and how you should be as a human. But hanging on to Leonard at the end of the day, I don’t think that would be a healthy thing to do. [laughs] He was fun to play, but I’m glad that I’m not him, as a human being.
BT: The premiere seemed like a memorable experience as well. You wore black which is appropriate, John.
JM: And that was before we knew this thing was going to be successful because that was before it came out. So I think that joy was just everyone seeing each other again, everyone being together and being able to share that night, and like you said, I wore black. I guess that was the key fact—because no one knew at that point as to the villainous nature of him. And it’s funny that you noticed that. But it was such a great night, and it was fun to see everyone and we had such a great time up in Toronto. It’s like summer camp – you spend all this time together, you’re really involved, and then you kind of go away for a while and then you reconnect, and it’s like you don’t miss a beat.
BT: There must have been a feeling like: “This is really happening!”.
JM: Uh, yeah! There was and seeing how it’s gone now has been amazing. I’ve never seen Buzzfeed quizzes for anything I’ve done before! When I started seeing Buzzfeed quizzes for it, I was like “Oh wow! I guess people are really responding to this”. [laughs]
BT: Did you take the ‘Which Umbrella Academy character Are You?’ Buzzfeed quiz? And if so, which character were you?
JM: I got Vanya, so it was perfect. [laughs]
The Umbrella Academy is currently streaming on Netflix